Making Edmonton into a city with safe, appropriate, affordable housing for all is Geneva Ricks’ dream. The sociology grad is collaborating with the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness on the two-day Right to Housing conference this weekend. Ricks specifically designed the conference for those who have limited knowledge or experience of the issues around homelessness and would like to learn more. According to her, housing insecurity is an issue that affects us all, whether it’s actual homelessness or the financial and social pressures that make homelessness a reality for some 2,000+ Edmontonians.
“I want people to gain more awareness of the issues –- how this came to be, the historical background –- but it’s not just about informing the public,” says Ricks. “I want to empower them to act for change. My passion is community initiatives, and homelessness is one of the pertinent issues.”
Throughout her university years, the criminology major took advantage of a number of opportunities to work closely with professionals in the community, including a placement with the Youth Restorative Action Project (YRAP). Founded and run by Edmonton youth, YRAP works to find meaningful, rehabilitative consequences for young offenders who are also dealing with social issues. Through YRAP, Ricks met Jim Robertson and Mark Cherrington, lawyers for the Youth Criminal Defense Office who would often refer clients to the project. While Ricks sees both men as big influences on her life, she credits Robertson in particular with helping to focus her interests. “I wanted to save the world and he helped me see what was realistic,” she laughs.
Ricks also took courses through the Faculty of Arts Community Service-Learning (CSL) program, which placed her with the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. It was here that she met Jim Gurnett, a powerful advocate for the inner city and Ricks’ mentor and collaborator on several projects, including the Right to Housing Conference. “Every time we meet he tries to teach me something. Not just about how to plan an event, but also what’s new in the community and in the news,” says Ricks. “That critical thought that he hauls out of me… I love that!”
With the guidance of CSL instructor Alison Dunwoody, Ricks was able to secure a project grant for the conference, and along with Gurnett, is overseeing all facets of the event. “We’re hoping to have a hundred registrants, but I think if I have 60 people who are interested in mobilizing for change, that’s better than 100 who just want to learn. It begins with the individual. Once we see this not as a homelessness problem but a community problem, we can really work toward change.”
Ricks credits the criminology program for steering her in the right direction. “It’s been the best experience I’ve had at the U of A,” says Ricks. “It allowed me to focus my thoughts and interests and to put the theory with the reality.” The young activist hopes to start a master’s in criminal justice in 2016, and maybe write the LSAT in December. “Until then,” says Ricks, “I’ll just work and volunteer and do the community work that I love. It’s been a busy year but it’s kept me interested and excited about life!”